WASHINGTON – House Republicans on Wednesday replaced the ethics chairman who presided over rebukes of a GOP leader, a change Democrats called a purge of a lawmaker who wouldn't follow the party line.
The appointment of Rep. Doc Hastings (search), R-Wash., to take over for ethics committee chairman Joel Hefley (search), R-Colo. was not a surprise. Speaker Dennis Hastert had been signaling for months that he would not waive a rule that limited Hefley's term.
Nonetheless, Democrats revived their criticism from the opening day of Congress last month, accusing Republicans of trying to politicize an equally divided committee that is supposed to conduct nonpartisan investigations of member conduct.
"By ousting Mr. Hefley as chairman of the ethics committee and replacing him with a party loyalist, the Republican leadership is sending a chilling message to members who value upholding the highest ethical standard over partisan loyalty," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement.
"It is further evidence that there is a purge underway of any Republican who does not precisely toe the party line."
Hastings told reporters: "My job is simply to protect the integrity of the House. I intend to do that."
A meeting of House Republicans on Wednesday ratified Hastert's choice of Hastings. In addition, Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas GOP ally of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search), returned to the committee after an absence of several years.
DeLay and many other Republicans were furious over a case last October in which the committee said DeLay had created the appearance of linking political donations to a legislative favor and had improperly persuaded U.S. aviation authorities to intervene in a Texas political dispute.
GOP members were also angered that the complaint leading to the findings was filed by a freshman Texas Democrat, Chris Bell (search), who lost his primary last year under a redistricting plan largely influenced by DeLay. The committee found in a separate report that Bell's complaint contained numerous exaggerations.
Just six days before that finding, the ethics committee said DeLay went "beyond the boundaries" of party discipline when he tried to persuade a Michigan Republican to support legislation that provided a Medicare prescription drug benefit.
Republicans were doubly furious that the findings admonished another GOP loyalist, Rep. Candace Miller of Michigan, for improperly trying to influence the vote of the same lawmaker -- Nick Smith, R-Mich.
Hastings was the panel's senior Republican behind Hefley.
The House began its new session last month with an ethics controversy. Republicans overrode Democratic objections and pushed through a key rule change for the committee, which has five members from each party.
The change requires a majority vote to launch an investigation of a member, effectively giving either party the power to block any future investigation.
It replaced a provision that automatically triggered an investigation if the chairman and ranking member failed -- within a specified time frame -- to place a complaint before the full committee for a decision.
In addition to Hastings, the Republican committee members will include Smith, ethics chairman from 1996-98; Melissa Hart of Pennsylvania; Tom Cole of Oklahoma; and Judy Biggert of Illinois. Biggert is a returning member.
Democratic members remain the same: Alan Mollohan of West Virginia, returning as the senior minority member; Gene Green of Texas; Stephanie Tubbs-Jones of Ohio; Michael Doyle of Pennsylvania; and Lucille Roybal-Allard of California.